In a sure sign that I’m either avoiding grading or preparing for a new episode of The Policast, I spent an hour of my life this week investigating this marginally interesting question: How good are political pundits and reporters at prognosticating the “veep-stakes”?

That is, once a nomination for U.S. president is sewn up, how do supposed experts do in the initial rounds of predicting possible vice-presidential nominees? Barring some kind of game-changer (cliché alert) on the incumbent’s side (Clinton from State?), I think we’re just talking about the GOP here.

Lest anyone feel too sure of themselves (is Paul Ryan peaking too soon?), here’s how the early “veep-stakes” stood in May-June 2008, as the Democratic race was winding down (Hilary Clinton conceded on June 7th) and three months after Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee had stepped aside as the last serious obstacles to John McCain’s nomination on the Republican side.

May 23: In one of the earliest projections, the Wall Street Journal placed Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, Ohio governor Ted Strickland, and Kansas governor Kathleen Sibelius on an Obama “short list,” with the names of governors Tim Kaine (Virginia) and Bill Richardson (New Mexico), Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, and former Georgia senator Sam Nunn also being floated. Beginning what would become a WSJ theme throughout the next six weeks, reporter Amy Chozick was dismissive of the possibility of an Obama-Clinton team.

Sen. Rob Portman
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) - U.S. Senate

May 24: National Journal reporters James Barnes and Peter Bell polled 81 Republican and 78 Democratic “political insiders.” The results for McCain: 32% thought Mitt Romney would make the best running mate, followed by Rob Portman, the former Ohio representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget (14%, now a U.S. senator and again being mentioned as a possible veep), Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (9% — speaking at Bethel on April 16th, by the way), 2000 Democratic VP nominee Joe Lieberman (6%), and rising Virginia congressman Eric Cantor, Florida governor Charlie Crist, and former secretary of state Colin Powell (all 4%). The polling for a good Obama partner was much more divided, with seventeen names coming up. Leaders: Hilary Clinton (17%), Kathleen Sibelius (12%), Delaware senator Joe Biden, Virginia senator Jim Webb, and Ted Strickland (all 9%), and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell (8%).

May 27: David Brooks dedicated a column to the question. He concluded that Barack Obama would most need an experienced politician who could build coalitions across the aisle and supervise a diverse cabinet: former senators Tom Daschle (South Dakota) and Sam Nunn (Georgia) leapt to Brooks’ mind. He then suggested John McCain pick a calming influence who could “help him de-ideologize the climate”: if not a business leader like Meg Whitman, then either Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty (“one of the G.O.P.’s leading and most likeable modernizers”).

May 31: The Economist prized potential veeps that could help bring in battleground states. For McCain: Crist (though it worried about his “bachelorhood” being an issue for “social conservatives”), Pawlenty, and Portman. For Obama: governors Rendell, Strickland, and Tim Kaine (who received just one vote in the National Journal poll), plus Senator Webb (whom the same periodical profiled three weeks later, rendering a largely negative verdict as a possible VP). The writer also proposed that McCain might enlist another of his former rivals, Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.

June 11: The New York Times reported that the Obama list lost one name (Ohio governor Strickland, who categorically disclaimed interest) and gained another (former NATO commander James Jones).

Kay Bailey Hutchison
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) - Wikimedia

June 16: In his “Washington Whispers” column for U.S. News & World Report, Paul Bedard recycled Daschle and Powell for Obama, but also reported that John McCain was “being urged to pick a woman or minority… some history-making angle…” Possibles in those categories: Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, New Mexico representative Heather Wilson, or Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.

In Newsweek‘s issue that same day, Jonathan Alter focused on Obama’s choice, concluding that geography (not balance, per se, but ability to deliver close states) and chemistry with the presidential nominee were the two main concerns. (Both of which eliminated Hilary Clinton, in his view.) In addition to the already-mentioned Strickland, Rendell, Webb, Kaine, Daschle, Sibelius, and Richardson, Alter added Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, former Virginia governor Mark Warner, some current and former senators (Dodd, Nunn, Florida’s Bob Graham, and 2004 VP nominee John Edwards), and still another former general (Wesley Clark).

June 17: In a brief attempt at “Parsing the Veepstakes,” Time political reporter Mark Halperin thought that the Obama camp was still torn about Hilary Clinton being on the ticket, while on the other side, “The big surprise has been the bond developing between McCain and onetime rival Mitt Romney.”

Barack Obama and Joe Biden
Pres. Barack Obama and Vice Pres. Joe Biden - White House

June 21: Marc Ambinder’s article in The National Journal was mostly about the process of vetting VP candidates, but based on conversations with Obama aides not part of the vetting, he did propose a short list: Sibelius, Kaine, Daschle, Webb, and Arizona governor Janet Napolitano. More significantly, he reported that one of the twenty names that Obama “veep-hunters” Jim Johnson and Eric Holder had inquired about was that of Delaware senator Joe Biden, though Ambinder said nothing more of that possibility. He found the McCain camp more divided, with some pushing for Tom Ridge (first secretary of Homeland Security and the pro-choice former governor of Pennsylvania) and one “senior adviser” encouraging McCain to pick a woman… like CEOs Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman.

June 25: In its “Veeptacular” issue, The New Republic published a series of reflections on possible running mates for both presidential candidates. For Obama:

  • Hilary Clinton: “a nightmare,” TNR editorialized
  • Jim Webb: Eve Fairbanks thought they had a surprising amount in common
  • Sam Nunn: calling him the “Washington establishment’s archetype of a vice president,” Michael Crowley urged Obama to “give the idea hard thought”
  • Ed Rendell: “no shot,” lamented Friday Night Lights author and TNR guest contributor Buzz Bissinger.

And for Sen. McCain:

  • Tim Pawlenty: Noam Scheiber took him seriously, though he thought that the mullet-headed working class image belied the fact that he “governed as a standard-issue fat-cat Republican”
  • Mike Huckabee: now-N.Y. Times columnist Ross Douthat concluded that a McCain-Huckabee ticket “would make sense only if McCain were running a very different sort of campaign—if he were in the mood to blow up the GOP in the name of ‘creative destruction'” — ironically, given how McCain’s actual selection fared, Douthat posited that “the first rule of picking a running mate is to risk as little harm to the ticket as possible”
  • New York mayor Mike Bloomberg: Ben Wasserstein actually considered him for both sides in the election — the subject of an article earlier in the month by New York magazine, but found Bloomberg unlikely to help broaden Obama’s appeal among working class and rural voters or to help McCain excite conservatives.
Sarah Palin and John McCain
Then-governor Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) at a 2008 campaign rally in Virginia - Creative Commons (Rachael Dickson)

The obvious takeaway is that it’s far too early to begin such guessing, that no one really got it right. But… some had the right idea.

Hardly anyone took Joe Biden seriously as a choice, but he did satisfy the criteria proposed by David Brooks and others who preferred an experienced Washington politico like Tom Daschle. At least a couple of experts recognized that McCain’s desperation would likely incline him towards a “game-changing” choice, but no one so much as mentioned Alaska governor Sarah Palin. (Though she was proposed by an unlikely backer, pro-life libertarian and music critic Nat Hentoff, in an op-ed piece picked up by the Washington Times.)

For my future self looking to recycle this idea in 2016… After Rick Santorum dropped out Tuesday, Opposing Views blogger Zach Lisabeth offered five VP candidates for Mitt Romney. Two were retreads from 2008: Kay Bailey Hutchison and our old friend Rob Portman. Then three that weren’t on anyone’s short list four years ago: Santorum (the “Hold Your Nose Veep”), Wisconsin wunderkind/lightning rod for criticism Paul Ryan, and one “game-changer,” Florida senator Marco Rubio.

One thought on “Veep-Stakes

  1. Spot on, Chris! It also seems that as each political seer recycles the conventional wisdom, they offer one more source of validation of that conventional wisdom to the next pundit who presumes to predict the veepstakes.

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